Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

Saudi TelecomThe government of Saudi Arabia may be exploiting a decades-old tracking system embedded in the global mobile telecommu- nications network in order to spy on its citizens as they travel abroad, a report suggests. The report was published on Sunday in the British broadsheet The Guardian, based on documents provided by an anonymous whistle-blower.

The alleged documents may implicate Saudi Arabia’s three largest cellular telecommuni- cations service providers, said The Guardian, namely Mobily, Zain and Saudi Telecom. The anonymous whistle-blower told the paper that these companies were “weaponizing mobile technologies”, allegedly under the direction of Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy, which is notorious for suppressing political dissent within and outside the oil kingdom.

The alleged method of surveillance relies on SS7, a decades-old feature of the global cellular telecommunications system, which allows cellular providers to provide service to mobile phone users as they travel internationally. The SS7 system allows a mobile phone registered in a specific country to be used from a different country, and its user to be charged for the service. But to do so with accuracy, the SS7 system enables the service provider to track the owner of the device being charged for the phone call. This is done through what is known in cellular telecommunications parlance as a Provide Subscriber Location, or PSL, request.

According to The Guardian, Saudi cellular telecommunications providers have been making “excessive use” of PSLs in recent years. This indicates possible attempts to track the physical movements of Saudi cell mobile phone users who are traveling to the United States, and possibly other countries. The paper said that millions of PSLs were filed by Saudi Arabia in a one-month period in November of 2019. There is no telling how long this alleged surveillance operation has been going on, and in how many countries.

The paper also said that Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from the US state of Oregon, who is a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Intelligence, has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the privacy vulnerabilities of the SS7 system. However, the FCC has taken no action on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 March 2020 | Permalink

One Response to Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

  1. Pete says:

    Looks like the Saudi NSA (might be the Saudi Ministry of Defense (MOD) Technical Affairs Directorate (TAD)) is being outed for exploiting an established and agreed cellphone tracking international standard. Any country’s NSA might do this against those they consider suspects overseas.

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